In our recent clubs, I’ve got into the habit of starting the week by reading a book by the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie; I’ve read and loved her books since my early teens and I always love the excuse for a revisit! However, although there’s a 1954 Christie title (“Destination Unknown”), I thought I would ring the changes with my first read for the 1954 Club and spend some time in the company of a perhaps underappreciated author who I recently rediscovered – the marvellous Gladys Mitchell and her extremely individual detective, Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley!

As I mentioned in my post earlier this month, Mitchell was highly regarded by writers such as Philip Larkin; she was an incredibly prolific author and her books were very popular; yet as I discovered whilst digging about for a 1954 title, her work is sporadically in print and many titles are hard to obtain. I guess her books are not as widely popular as Christie’s are, and her plots and characterisations *can* be a little outré; however, when she’s good, she’s very good and so I was keen to see what I could find for our club.

Well. There *was* a 1954 book and it’s “Faintley Speaking”. Frustratingly, I owned this book once; I have an old ringbinder full of lists of books I owned back in my 20s and the page of Mitchells is long and includes this title. However, I no longer have it, which was extremely irking – there’s much to be said for NOT culling your books. My heart sank a little when I did some online searching and realised that this was not one of the commonly available Mitchells; but I managed to track down a reasonably priced copy described as a ‘reading copy’, and awaited its arrival with trepidation. It actually turned out to be an old green Penguin much like the original one I owned, and it was intact and I’d describe it as ‘fair’, so I was happy. It may have fragile, browned pages but it’s holding up – at least I was able to read it!

Mitchell was writing Mrs. Bradley novels between 1929 and 1984, which is quite a range, and so “Faintley…” sits somewhere in the middle. Unlike “The Rising of the Moon”, Mrs. Bradley has a much more prominent place in the narrative and here she’s assisted by her secretary, Laura, a young Amazonian woman who can do all of the physical stuff Mrs. Bradley can’t. The book opens with Geoffrey Mandsell, an impoverished author, receiving a phone call in a phone box which was meant for someone else. The caller, who identifies herself as “Faintley speaking”, instructs Mandsell re the collection and delivery of a parcel, then rings off. Mandsell, with nothing else to do except get thrown out of his lodgings, complies and ends up setting off a chain of events which will involve murder, adventures on the high seas (or at least the English Channel!), undercover escapades and some very threatening characters!

Intriguingly, a lot of the action is set in a school, as a holidaying schoolboy, Mark, is involved in the discovery of a body, and the murder victim is a quiet schoolteacher! Laura spends some interesting time posing as a teacher whilst investigating, and it seems that education is not the placid profession you might expect. Mrs. Bradley also ranges far and wide, at one point whisking Mark off to France to see the caves of Lascaux, where you can find some of the earliest known graffiti, and where she also finds clues stretching back to wartime. There are boat chases, disappearing railway porters and networks of criminals – it’s all very satisfying!!

Miss Golightly greeted her charmingly, produced the school time-table, explained Laura’s part in it shortly and comprehensibly, showed her a list of school duties which included keeping a milk and dinner list, officiating in the playground during break, taking her turn at dinner duty, supervision of the cloakrooms, the banning of chewing-gum and strip-cartoon papers (for all), facial adornment (for the girls), lethal weapons (for the boys ), fountain-pens (for both sexes), and likewise personal bottles of ink.

I’m not going to give any more plot details because, as with all good Golden Age crime novels, so much of the joy of reading is from being in the hands of a master storyteller and watching it all unfold. Mitchell is in top form here, with the initial chapters giving no hint of where the plot will go, and what the crime actually is. Her characters are brilliantly realised, with Mark himself being another excellent portrayal of a younger person. The school setting was wonderfully familiar, and it has to be remembered that Mitchell herself taught for a large chunk of her life, and if I recall correctly from my readings of her books, schools do turn up on a regular basis! Mitchell makes some wonderfully barbed comments on unequal pay for men and women, with the scenes set in the school being very believable. Mrs. Bradley is, of course, a joy; she’s portrayed as a women who leers and cackles and yet her ugliness is contrasted with the most beautiful voice! A very singular character, and much as I love Diana Rigg, she was much too attractive an actress to play Mrs. Bradley on TV!

Anyway, that’s by the by perhaps; the bottom line is that I loved “Faintley Speaking” and I really think Mitchell should be the Alternative Queen of Crime! Her books may not be the massive sellers that the Christies are, and they may be quite odd at times, but she’s a wonderfully entertaining author and her best works are absolutely gripping. A cracking start to the #1954Club and a reminder to me to be a little more careful about the books I weed from the Ramblings… ;D

*****

So we’re onward and upward with the #1954Club! Do share what you’re reading and enjoying on my dedicated page for the club and I’ll link to your post – looking forward to hearing what bookish delights you discover! 😀